Meal Planning for People Who Don’t Like to Plan

Updated on May 4, 2020
Susan Caplan McCarthy profile image

As a professional organizer, Susan also helps clients develop the habits and mindsets that allow them to be purposeful and productive.

Meal planning isn't about creating elaborate dinners. It's a tool to help you identify what you need in your kitchen.
Meal planning isn't about creating elaborate dinners. It's a tool to help you identify what you need in your kitchen. | Source

How to Plan Without Planning

Planning a week's (or month's) worth of meals may be an unrealistic goal for you. It might seem too overwhelming to accomplish, or you may realize that you’re usually responding to last-minute changes to your schedule and you wouldn’t be able to stick with a plan, even if you had one.

The idea behind "planning without creating a plan" relies on identifying what you like to eat and what staples you need for your pantry and freezer. Yes, this does require a bit of forethought (planning)—but not with the level of detail that conventional meal planning requires.

Define Your Goals

The overreaching goal of meal planning (or “planning”) is to prepare more meals at home. Why do you want to do this? To save money? To eat more healthful meals? To consume fewer calories? To waste less time dashing into the grocery store to grab something for dinner? To avoid running out of basics like rice or ground beef? To eat fewer fast food or takeout meals?

Knowing why you want to eat more meals at home is useful when life gets busy or you’re tired and want to slip back into the habits you’re trying to change. Reminding yourself to check your pantry and make a shopping list isn’t fun but it will help you stick with your goal later in the week when you go to make lunch or dinner.

Know Your Why

What benefits are you hoping to gain by simplifying your meal plans?

Identify Your Favorite Meals

What home-prepared meals do you and your family most enjoy? Would it be time-consuming to prepare this meal?

Sometimes people associate meal planning with elaborate meals, but really, meal planning helps you identify the foods you need in your kitchen to prepare the meals you want to eat.

Even knowing that Kraft macaroni and cheese with chicken nuggets is your go-to meal when you’ve been running around with the kids is useful, so you make a point of keeping these items in your home.

List five meals that are simple to prepare (they don’t have to rely on packaged and processed food). Then, list the ingredients you need (it isn’t necessary to list herbs, oil, or other things that you always have available). Keep these items on hand.

You aren’t limited to these five meals, but if you don’t have time to plan something else, you can rely on these go-to menus. And, chances are, you can interchange the components to make a different meal.

Dinner Matrix

Side vegetable of choice
Meat alternative

Stock Your Kitchen

The secret to writing a grocery list is to know what you’re going to serve during the week and/or what basics you want to keep on hand. Since the focus here is on "non-planning," I’ll concentrate on the basics you want to have available.

Now, there’s a lot of "pantry essentials" lists that you can find online, but you don’t necessarily want to follow them. Why? Because if you don’t eat a certain food, then it isn’t essential for you.

The list you made in the previous section of five simple meals is a more accurate list of what you want to keep on hand all the time. Go take a peek into your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer for other items to keep on hand—milk, eggs, butter, bread, pasta, rice, frozen vegetables, canned soup, whatever works for you.

You could even create a "backwards" shopping list. Type up a list of the things you want to keep on hand. Now, before going to the grocery store, use the list to inventory what you have in your kitchen, crossing off foods that you have plenty of. Add in anything that isn’t on the list and you’ve made the process of creating a shopping list soooo much easier!

What Are Your Essentials?

What you'll want to keep on hand will be different than what someone else has available in their kitchen. There's no right or wrong (unless you're buying food that no one eats).

Prep and Cook for the Week

Cooking for the week doesn’t necessarily mean that you must prepare entire meals. You can cook enough ground beef or chicken breasts for two or three meals and keep the extra in the refrigerator. Add in a starch or salad and a vegetable and you can put a meal on the table with little fuss.

Also, cooking proteins, portioning them for meals, and freezing the cooked poultry or beef is useful for creating soups, burritos, fajitas, stir fries, and casseroles in a hurry. Just remember to clearly label the identity of the food and when you cooked it before putting the package in the freezer.

Cereal and milk is a meal if you enjoy it as one. Don't think meal planning has to get more complicated than this.
Cereal and milk is a meal if you enjoy it as one. Don't think meal planning has to get more complicated than this. | Source

Make a Fuss-Free Plan

Make Dinner Plans in the Morning

In the morning, look at the schedule for the day and decide what dinner you want to serve. Do you need to defrost something during the day, or will you rely on the chicken you cooked over the weekend?

Deciding this in the morning means that you won’t be frantic on your drive home from work trying to figure out what you need to grab at the grocery store.

And if you struggle to think of dinner first thing in the day, having cooked meats in your refrigerator or freezer and knowing a few meals that you can quickly get on the table will still help you stick to your goal of serving more home-cooked meals.

Plan Breakfast and Lunch, Too

Except for a special weekend breakfast or brunch, breakfasts and lunches tend to be simpler meals. Do you and your family member eat the same things each day or do you prefer variety? Include frozen waffles or cereal on your "backwards" shopping list (the list that includes the basics you want to keep on hand, mentioned earlier).

Writing a shopping list not only saves you time while in the store but it means that you won't be making additional trips during the week.
Writing a shopping list not only saves you time while in the store but it means that you won't be making additional trips during the week. | Source

Simple Menu Planning

The emphasis here is on keeping basics on hand as opposed to creating a shopping list based around specific meals you plan on serving during the week. Identifying some basic meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, means that you’ll likely be stocked with basics that you can interchange (chicken or beef? Pasta or rice? Tomato sauce or broccoli?).

It might take a few weeks to identify the basics you want on your grocery list so you can keep them stocked in your kitchen, but this will make spontaneous meal "planning" a much simpler process.

Do You Have a Favorite Go-To Meal?

Submit a Comment
  • lizmalay profile image


    2 months ago from USA

    A meal plan is essential to me. On weekdays I tend to cook comfort food because I save the leftover for my lunch the next day. However, there are times I cooked something simple like breakfast for dinner (mostly eggs) Usually, on the weekend, I list down the menu that I will prepare for the weekdays. Thanks for sharing your plan. It works for me.


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